By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Would he like to try out for the USA Basketball team that was headed to the under-19 world championships in New Zealand?
Was he interested in playing at one of Nike’s invitation-only skills academies, or in the Maccabiah Games, or for Trinidad and Tobago (his mother’s native country) in the Caribbean championships?
In the end, Sylven Landesberg’s answer to those questions was the same:
Thanks, but no thanks. I’m staying in New York.
The reigning ACC rookie of the year returned to Charlottesville early last month for summer school, and to work out with new strength-and-conditioning coach Mike Curtis. But in May, his first year at UVa behind him, Landesberg had headed home to Queens to dive into what has become a tradition for the 6-6 swingman: workouts under the direction of his father, Steve.
“We would start at 6 o’clock in the morning,” the elder Landesberg said this morning, “and sometimes we’d come home at 11 o’clock at night. And it was every day.”
As a freshman, Landesberg averaged 16.6 points, 6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, earning national acclaim for his play. As a result, he had several attractive offseason options from which to choose.
Tony Bennett, who replaced Dave Leitao as the Cavaliers’ coach after the season, encouraged Sylven to try out for the under-19 national team, which ended up winning the gold medal in New Zealand. Steve Landesberg wanted his son home, however, and father got his way.
“I want him to be perfect,” the elder Landesberg said, “so in order to be perfect, you have to practice your craft.”
Sylven says he wanted to be in New York, anyway.
“The USA [Basketball] thing, people had a lot to say about that,” he said last week at John Paul Jones Arena. “I just kept hearing it was a great experience, because you’re playing against the top players, not just in the country, in the world. But I looked at it as more of an experience than anything. I wanted to really focus on getting better for next season and doing what I had to do to help the team gain some more wins instead of going out there and trying to achieve more accolades.”
Sylven went home with Bennett’s blessing. The new coach had spent enough time with his best player to know that Sylven would return with an improved game.
“He’s driven,” Bennett said, “and anybody who’s that serious about his game is going to get better. With the fact that he came back and got a class in and worked with Mike, I think he got the best of both worlds.”
In New York, Steve Landesberg ratcheted up his son’s offseason program this year, hiring professional trainers to work with Sylven.
“It’s amazing, when you think you know so much, how little you really know when you’re around people who know so much more,” said Steve Landesberg, who’s retired.
Sylven worked primarily with Jay Hernandez, a former Hofstra point guard, and Milton Lee, who’s based at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan.
On a typical day, Sylven recalled, he’d wake up at 5:30 a.m. and then shoot from about 6 to 7 a.m. at a YMCA near his house in Queens. After a quick breakfast, he’d work out with Hernandez for about 90 minutes.
“He was just straight basketball,” Sylven said, “just conditioning, and basketball, and tearing my skill set up.”
After lunch came weightlifting and sessions with Lee. After dinner, Sylven said, he’d run a few miles along the Cross Island Parkway. He’d cap the day by testing himself against college and pro players in games at the NYAC.
In addition, Steve Landesberg said, he had Sylven “taking boxing lessons and working with a strength-and-conditioning guy, different things to help him improve his footwork and hand speed.”
Not until November will UVa fans be able to judge for themselves the effect of these workouts on Landesberg’s game, but his father says they helped “tremendously. I didn’t realize he could get so much better. With these trainers and all these different things we had him doing, he got so much better.”
As a freshman, Landesberg showed promise as a 3-point shooter late in the season, but overall hit only 31.4 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Opponents want to limit Landesberg’s trademark drives to the basket, and he knows he must become more dangerous from the perimeter.
“I would say that’s what I worked on most this summer, just my jump shot,” Landesberg said. “I took tons of jump shots every day, just trying to patent my form and get everything down. I think that made huge improvements.”
He hopes to see the Wahoos make similar progress as a team this season. UVa finished 10-18 in 2008-09, after which Leitao stepped down under pressure. If Landesberg and his teammates have been particularly motivated this summer, he said, it’s because they’ve experienced “the worst of the worst, having the subpar season we did. We’re all ready to make an impact.”
The Cavaliers’ top six scorers from 2008-09 are back: Landesberg, forward Mike Scott (10.3 ppg), guards Calvin Baker (8.4) and Sammy Zeglinski (7.8), forward Jamil Tucker (7.4) and guard Jeff Jones (6.5). Other veterans include 7-0 center Assane Sene, who blocked a team-high 35 shots and averaged 4.6 rebounds as a freshman last season.